Book Review: Open to Debate
Title: Open to Debate
Sub-Title: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line
Author: Heather Hendershot
Publisher: Broadside Books
Date of Publication: 2016
Quote: There is simply no equivalent [to Firing Line] on TV today. Conservatives have Fox News, liberals have MSNBC…. Overall, politically oriented broadcasting has become a vast echo chamber…, with many tuning in largely to have their views confirmed and to hear the other side vilified. This is not a scenario that encourages dialogue between those holding different political convictions.1
Review: The author of this book is a professor of film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of previous books, including ones on conservative and religious broadcasting. Thankfully, the book is well-written and largely free of the theory-laden jargon so common to academic books in this field.
If you're unfamiliar with Firing Line, here is how Hendershot describes it:
…Buckley's program was…often a space for liberalism to meet conservatism, for the left wing to meet the right wing. The result was no-holds-barred, honest intellectual combat, a space that both liberal and conservative viewers could turn to [to] have their ideas confirmed, but also challenged…. You could actually learn about other points of view, and thereby become a better liberal or a better conservative from watching the show.1
If you've never seen the show, the book includes several excerpts of some length that can give you an idea of what the argumentation could be like, though there's really no substitute for seeing some episodes2.
The Preface briefly discusses Buckley's career in the '50s and '60s leading up to the creation of Firing Line in 1966, including a debate with writer James Baldwin and Buckley's quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City. The introduction, then, discusses how the show was started, and each subsequent chapter examines the way the show handled specific issues, namely:
- Conservatism, especially its position in American politics after Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat in 1964.
- Anti-communism, including McCarthyism.
- The civil rights and black power movements.
- The women's liberation movement.3
- Richard Nixon's presidency and the Watergate scandal.
- Ronald Reagan's presidency and the apparent triumph of Buckley's style of conservatism.
I'm rather nostalgic for a kinder, gentler era of politics when it seemed possible for people of different political persuasions to actually talk to one another. Nowadays, politics seems so polarized that either people of different ideologies and parties do not communicate at all, or they do so by shrieking and fighting. However, Firing Line began its run in 1966, so that its first several years were during the period of the Vietnam war and Watergate. Political civility was probably at as low an ebb then as it is now, a fact which is reflected in some of the early shows.
One lesson of this history is an optimistic one: things may seem bad now, but they've been as bad or worse in the past and matters improved. The "golden age" of political discourse on television is partly an illusion and partly a product of the changed times. Thus, there's a basis for hope, even an expectation, that things will improve with time. Moreover, Firing Line was always a small oasis of polite political discussion with "exiguous"4 ratings, as Hendershot mentions5:
It is easy to pine for the days when news and public affairs were (theoretically) smarter, before the rise of cable news, but this is nostalgia plain and simple. Firing Line mostly stood alone in a TV news and public affairs environment that was not particularly cerebral.6
This is a work of history more than a scholarly study of debate, political rhetoric, or argumentation, though there is much in it of interest on those topics. I'm not an historian, but as far as I can tell the book is historically accurate, though Hendershot has problems with chronology7. For example, there is a howler in the following passage concerning "…the 1968 episode with Eldridge Cleaver:
Now, keep in mind that at this moment Nixon was particularly concerned about PBS liberalism and even had the Corporation for Public Broadcasting defer funding for public affairs programs. The president was hoping to eliminate white-produced PBS shows that sought to radicalize "the silent majority" of white middle-class Americans. … Nixon felt…that there was "no such thing as good publicity" where the TV presentation of liberals or radicals was concerned. So this episode was radical by virtue of even existing at a moment when the president was pulling out all the dirty tricks up his sleeve to limit the broadcasting of radical perspectives.8
There are three anachronisms in this passage:
- 1968 was an election year and Nixon was only elected president for the first time in November of that year9, and was not inaugurated until the following January10. So, Nixon was not even president at the time of the show.
- Firing Line did not move to PBS until 197111.
- Nixon didn't try to cut off funding for PBS public affairs shows until 1973, according to Hendershot herself12.
I think Hendershot was misled here by her enthusiasm for the notion that Firing Line was good for the left even though Buckley was the most famous representative of the American right during its run. She does make a solid case that it was one of the few television shows where liberals, and even radicals, could be heard for longer than a soundbite, though I think this was more true in the show's first decade than in its last.
In the Conclusion, "In Praise of Honest Intellectual Combat", Hendershot recommends―or at least considers the prospects for a reboot of the show with a new host. I don't know whether this book influenced it, but a new Firing Line with host Margaret Hoover is scheduled to begin airing next month13, though I expect that its ratings will also be exiguous.
Recommendation: I enjoyed this book immensely, but I wonder whether younger folks who don't remember Buckley or the show will find it as fascinating as I did. I'm old enough to have lived through the entire run of the show and remember watching some episodes over the years, though I was never a regular viewer and saw only a tiny fraction of the total number of shows. Perhaps a new audience will be inspired by the new show to take an interest in the history of the old one. Highly recommended for a select audience, like Firing Line itself.
- P. 292. Page numbers in these notes refer to the book under review.
- A fraction of the total number of episodes are available for viewing on DVD, YouTube, and perhaps other venues.
- Most if not all of this chapter can be read here: Heather Hendershot, "William F. Buckley Was No Feminist, But He Was an (Unintentional) Ally", Politico, 10/2/2016.
- This was Buckley's word for it, meaning "scanty". See his The Lexicon: A Cornucopia of Wonderful Words for the Inquisitive Word Lover (1998).
- P. Lvii.
- P. 293.
- For instance, Hendershot seems to think that the My Lai massacre took place when Nixon was president (p. 210), whereas she elsewhere writes that it occurred in March of 1968 (p. 207), when LBJ was still in office.
- Pp. 129-130. Emphasis in the original.
- "Richard Nixon elected president", This Day in History, accessed: 5/10/2018.
- "Richard Nixon takes office", This Day in History, accessed: 5/10/2018.
- "Firing Line broadcast archive: Preface to the program catalogue", The Hoover Institution, accessed: 5/10/2018.
- P. 200.
- "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover Renews Iconic Public Affairs Talk Show, Delivering a Civil and Engaging Contest of Ideas", Thirteen, 4/26/2018.